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Nemo finds home at school
Grant gives students new interactive learning tool
web 0826 Fish 2
Students can see the aquarium through a window in the schools main hallway. Bright Ideas grant money helped the school purchase the fish and create a scenic habitat to inspire learning. - photo by Danielle Hipps

School funds for classroom fun

Bright Ideas
• What: The Coastal Electric Cooperative Bright Ideas grant awards teachers up to $2,000 each for school projects in Bryan, Liberty and McIntosh Counties
• When: Deadline for entries is Monday, Aug. 31
• Where: For information or to enter,

Pets in the Classroom
• What: A nationwide program that offers grants of
$50-$150 from various pet retailers for use in K-6 classes
• Where:

Fish World and Pet Shop
• What: Teacher Appreciation Program offers 15 percent off initial purchase, 10 percent off subsequent care supplies
• Where: 913 E.G. Miles Parkway, Hinesville

Thanks to a collaborative community effort, Liberty Elementary School has a new catalyst for learning: a 150-gallon aquarium filled with colorful African cichlids.

“I really like him because he looks like Nemo,” second-grader Trey Proman said while pointing to a shiny orange fish. “It has beautiful skin.”

Proman and classmate Xavier Jackson spent time in the school’s office Thursday morning watching the peacock cichlids from Lake Malawi and learning from the school’s principal, Chris Anderson, about their habitat.

The boys shared observations about the bubbles, the rocks in the aquarium and whether the fish would have “babies” to fill the tank.

Their inquiries are exactly what gifted resource teacher Lela Dickens had in mind when she began a quest to bring the fish to the school this time last year.

“It’s certainly been a journey,” she said. Last year, Dickens heard about the peril facing a school of grown cichlids in a Colonels Island vacation home that was to be sold.

When she learned about the fishy situation, Dickens only had 24 hours to act before the home’s power was going to be shut off, she said. With Anderson’s permission, she decided to bring the fish to the school and enlisted the help of a friend and school parent, Linda Waters.

Waters was ecstatic when she heard the news, and her husband, Jack Waters, a director at Coastal Electric Cooperative, enlisted the help of about five employees to remove the custom-built aquarium from the home. 

Removing the fish and the tanks was a long, arduous effort, according to those involved.

“It was an all-day project,” Coastal EMC spokesman Mark Bolton said. “There were lots of beautiful decorative stones and buckets and buckets full of gravel, and you had to catch all the little fish, and they were hiding behind the rocks.”

“There were big fish, too, big enough that you could eat them,” he added.

Unfortunately, none of the fish survived the move due to changes in the water and time spent without aeration. But Dickens did not want the efforts to be in vain, so she applied for a Coastal EMC Bright Ideas grant, which offers up to $2,000 for local educators to spend on classroom projects, to repopulate the tank.

In October, Dickens received $1,436 in grant funds, which she put toward purchasing fish and their habitat and engaging the entire school with the aquarium.

“Inquiry is the base of all knowledge,” she said. “And that tank offers a whole lot of inquiry.”

Each class will send one student representative every week to take care of the fish, she said. The classes will each keep a journal with their reflections on the marine habitat, sharing what they learned and how their curiosity led them to explore other topics.

But the tank in the office is not actually the one that was recovered from the home, Anderson explained.

The aquarium’s custom design complicated parts orders, and the school spent about $500 from its own fund to purchase another aquarium.

John Spradley, owner of Fish World and Pet Shop, is currently converting the original tank into a habitat for bearded dragons, Australian lizards that are among the more common reptile pets. It will be stored in Dickens’ room to promote learning about a different ecosystem.

“It’s like we got a double bonus out of the whole thing,” Dickens said.

Spradley sold the fish to the school at cost because he believes every child should own or have access to a pet, he said. Fish World and Pet Shop also offers a teacher appreciation program, with 15 percent off the initial pet purchase and 10 percent off of future pet care items.

“Cichlids are the most colorful and beautiful freshwater fish, in my opinion,” Spradley added. He designed the habitat to accommodate the species’ needs and future growth.

Linda Waters, who helped with the move, said the opportunities for learning are as vast as the seas.

“When (students are) looking at that little fish and they’re wondering how it breathes, maybe they will invent the next thing that saves somebody’s lungs,” she said.

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